March 2008


I’m pleased to announce a new story, “Here’s What I Know,” in the June issue of Realms of Fantasy. It should soon be available at booksellers everywhere, and John Howe’s lovely cover looks like this:

Buy yourself a copy, one for a friend as well. To get you started, here’s the opening paragraph of the highly autobiographical ghost story:

Here’s what I know: When Mom discovered she was pregnant with me, my parents had been separated for some time. Dad had left her for another woman in another town, and Mom had filed for divorce. I was conceived during a short-lived Christmas reunion. Dad wanted her to get an abortion. She refused. On the eve of the date when the divorce would’ve become final, Dad caught a train back to New York where Mom was living with my brother (four at the time) and begged her to take him back. She did. I was born September 2nd. Dad was at the hospital, 5:30 in the morning. They were married for the rest of their lives, both dying at seventy-two, a year apart. Dad first….

I’m once again teaching two courses at Virginia Commonwealth University this summer. They are both literature courses open to anyone who has successfully completed freshman English requirements. The first, Science Fiction, begins May 19th and runs through June 19th. Class meets 10:30 am—12:45 pm Monday through Thursday. We will read Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Films will be The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Dr. Strangelove, Alien, Starman, and The Children of Men.

The second class, Urban Fantasy, begins June 23rd and runs through July 24th. Class meets 10:30 am—12:45 pm Monday through Thursday. We will read Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, Sean Stewart’s Perfect Circle, Jeffrey Ford’s The Empire of Ice Cream, Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Films will be Edward Scissorhands, The Sixth Sense, Being John Malkovich, Donnie Darko, and Pan’s Labyrinth.

There’s plenty of room in both classes. I would love to have you!

After several folks encouraged me to attend, I finally went to the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando, Florida last week. It may be my favorite conference in the field. It’s at an airport hotel in the heart of the geography of nowhere with little to walk to except other soulless airport hotels featuring overpriced high fat dining, but the conference itself was a delight. It was easily the most convivial gathering I’ve been to, a blend of academics and writers who went out of their way to make newcomers feel welcome. I went with friend and fellow Richmond writer Tom De Haven, and he was equally delighted.

I read an abridged version of a story, “The Angel’s Touch,” which will appear in the April issue of Intergalactic Medicine Show and was pleased with its reception. I attended many fine readings (so many I’m sure I’m forgetting someone). Elizabeth Hand read from a YA novel in progress called “Wonderwall.” She captured the voice of a young runaway perfectly, and I can’t wait to read the finished work. Brian Aldiss read his version of “Metamorphosis” in which a hapless cockroach awakens to find itself transformed into “Franz sodding Kafka!” What a marvelous reader he is! It was one of the most hilarious readings I’ve ever heard. Patrick O’Leary read “The Little Guy,” an incisive skewering of everyone’s favorite president. Andy Duncan read a story in progress, the title of which includes the word “cache.” Sorry, Andy, my notes are illegible. The excerpt, however, was funny and sexy. Peter Straub read from intriguing novel-in-progress Skylark. It was my pleasure to read in the same session with Vernor Vinge. His story about an extremely dry martini of vast proportions was a real charmer, as the man is himself. Perhaps my favorite reading was James Morrow’s novella in progress, “Shambling Toward Hiroshima,” a secret history of a WW II WMD later generations have come to know as Godzilla. The brilliant director of Bride of Frankenstein, James Whale, is one of a delightful cast of characters. The best of the academic papers I heard was easily Sydney Duncan’s illuminating analysis of Kelly Link’s stories.

It was my great pleasure to meet Joe and Gay Haldeman and hang out with them. Joe is an endlessly fascinating conversationalist, and they were wonderful company. Tom and I also joined John Clute and Elizabeth Hand for a brief trip to the Canaveral wildlife area where we were thrilled with alligator sightings. John’s as pleasant as he is intelligent—which is saying quite a lot. It was a special pleasure to get to know Liz whom I’d met years ago in Chicago. Tom and I both intend to return to the conference next year. It really lifted my spirits.

Yesterday, we had to have Alice put down. Dr. Neal Rose of Broad Street Veterinary Hospital, who has cared for her all her life, came to the house. His kindness and sensitivity were a great comfort. Her sufferings from progressive arthritis had become unbearable. I raised her from a puppy of five weeks, and I loved her with all my heart. She was a loving, playful, highly intelligent dog without a mean bone in her body. In the quarter of my life I’ve spent with her, I learned a good deal more from her than she ever learned from me. In her memory, I offer this song I wrote for her some years ago in her more active days. The black chow in the second verse was a neighborhood dog who was a favorite of hers. Alice always had a thing for chows.

Bag of Food

Bag of food, bag of food
Daddy’s gonna buy me a bag of food.
I like the munch, I like the crunch,
Like it for breakfast, and I like it for lunch
Damn, you know, that stuff it sure tastes good.
There ain’t nothin’ better than a bag of food.
Bag of food, bag of food,
Daddy’s gonna buy me a bag of food.

Black chow, black chow
Ooh, I like him, and how.
Walks himself, don’t wear no leash.
He’s always somewhere The Man can’t reach.
Ooh I’d like to love him, but I don’t know how.
Ooh I’d like to love him—black chow.
Bag of food, bag of food
Daddy’s gonna buy me a bag of food.

Frisbee flies, so do I—
Gonna get to heaven before I die.
What’s that there, up in the sky?
Ain’t no eagle: it is I.
When the frisbee’s whirling I’m a blur,
Soaring though the heavens like a bird with fur.
Bag of food, bag of food
Daddy’s gonna buy me a bag of food.

Going to the river, gonna jump right in,
Throw me a stick, and I’ll do it again.
Wade in the water just as far as I can:
Sure I can swim, but it’s not my plan.
Jumping rock to rock just like a frog,
That’s why they call me river dog.
Bag of food, bag of food
Daddy’s gonna buy me a bag of food.

Under the table, under the bed
Don’t need no pillow under my head.
While I’m waiting, might as well sleep,
Dream I’m barking, dream I leap
Over the rainbow where squirrels run slow
And there’s a bag of food wherever I go.
Bag of food, bag of food
Daddy’s gonna buy me a bag of food.

I like the munch, I like the crunch,
Like it for breakfast, and I like it for lunch
Damn, you know, that stuff it sure tastes good.
There ain’t nothin’ better than a bag of food.

Writer friend and teacher of writing, Susan Heroy (a wonderful poet), told me she referred her students to my site for writing advice. Oh my God! was my first reaction. I always hesitate to pass out advice fearing it will be taken as authoritative. Even the best writing teachers are best at teaching you to write like them. I know folks who teach writing who never hesitate to be prescriptive: always use an outline, write in the present tense, avoid using dialogue, science fiction cannot be serious literature, etc., etc. I’ve heard all these from various authorities of my acquaintance. Their opposites as well. So what’s a writer to do? Seek out lots of teachers, lots of advice. My advice for today is the next time you find yourself stuck because you’ve run afoul of some influential mentor’s dictum, break the rule and see what happens. (Sorry, Susan, if this mucks things up too much!)

As a character in my as-yet-unpublished novel, The Donut Man, laments, “I’ve read so many books on [writing fiction], they all make a stew in my brain. It’s like the Bible. I can always find somebody to endorse what I’m doing in my fiction, just as many shaking their heads sadly at the mistakes I’m making. Write what you know. Write what you don’t know. Trust the process. Always outline. Find your own voice. Pretend to be other people. Write down the bones bird by fucking bird. All of the above. Thanks a lot.”

My all time favorite advice, however, comes from Lee Smith: “Stick with it.”

Alice ages relentlessly, and she doesn’t have much energy, but she still enjoys her bath. Here’s her very first bath and her most recent. The latter was taken at Critter Town Bathhouse, one of Alice’s favorite destinations. She recommends the aloe shampoo.